29 Linear Feet!
©2013 by Dallas Denny
Source: (2013, 13 October). Twenty-nine linear feet: The story of the National Transgender Library & Archive. Chrysalis Quarterly.
Thumbnail: The Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan preserves the histories of often-unpopular social movements like anarchy and war protests.
Twenty-Nine Linear Feet
The Story of the National Transgender Library & Archive
By Dallas Denny
Twenty-nine linear feet! If you’re a book geek, if you’ve spent a lot of time in libraries and archives, you’re already excited. If not, let me the space a collection takes on a library’s shelves is described in linear feet. In this case it’s the cumulative length of the pamphlets, flyers, and correspondence of The National Transgender Library & Archive materials at the Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Thousands of books and hundreds of journal titles are housed elsewhere in the archive and aren’t counted in those twenty-nine linear feet.
The collection just above in the Labadie’s catalog has 214 items, the collection just below 50 items. But the NTL&A? Twenty-nine linear feet!
This does not seem to include books (there are a thousand or more) or journals, which are apparently housed throughout the U. MI Library System. It includes 29 boxes of papers, photographs, and other loose materials. The collection, when transported, filled the largest size U-Haul truck. I would estimate there were 125-150 large boxes, and the university has added many materials since.
Looking for Information
When I was trying to come to terms with my transsexualism at age thirteen I had zero resources. It would have been dangerous to talk to my parents, my teachers, the preacher of the Baptist church my parents sometimes sent me to on Sunday mornings—I would have been institutionalized, beaten, or exorcised, I was sure, and I’m still sure—and there was nothing to read. Nothing. Nada. Zip.
Years later I found information at the medical library at Vanderbilt University, but it was uniformly bad—biased by the clinical truisms of the psychiatrists and psychologists who wrote it. Transsexuals were diseased people with character and personality disorders, substance abuse problems, and questionable lifestyles. Those without such characteristics were, ergo procter hoc, not transsexual. That meant I wasn’t transsexual. I wasn’t crazy, unstable, or felonious enough. But damn! It felt as if I were transsexual! Could it be—was it possible all those highly-trained, well-educated gender professionals were wrong? Sure it could! Purely on the strength of my own convictions I pursued and eventually obtained gender transition—still without a road map, still without a single trans acquaintance or a single book or magazine that could help me make sense of who I was.
A few better-connected that myself were able to locate the few resources available at the time—autobiographies by Christine Jorgensen, Roberta Cowell, Jan Morris, Renée Richards, Mario Martino, and others, magazines like Virginia Prince’s Transvestia and Lee Brewster’s Drag! and a host of lesser magazines, all of which tried to address crossdressing and transsexualism in a serious manner. These were, unfortunately, like tiny islands in a sea of transvestite erotic fiction books and pornography magazines. On two occasions I visited a porn shop to see if I could find something that made sense—an ad, perhaps, for a support group. I found nothing whatsoever socially redeeming in the magazines I bought; I threw them away immediately. It wasn’t a purge, as from the outset it wasn’t what I had been hoping to find, but close enough. Purges are, of course, endemic among transpeople. Guilt-ridden, many of us throw away our clothing, cosmetics, shoes, correspondence, and literature—sometimes many times over the course of our lives. Needless to say, this diminishes forever the few materials that are out there.
I did know about Tri-Ess, The Society for the Second Self, which served heterosexual crossdressers and their wives and girlfriends. It was clear from their literature I wasn’t a candidate for membership, but I did write in 1979 to ask to be put in touch with someone who knew about transsexualism. That’s how I came to exchange letters with the venerable Virginia Prince in April, 1980. She scared hell out of me.
And in this way I came to the cusp of my transition, without information and without support.
When I finally found the transgender community—that network of people just like me, people who weren’t diseased, who didn’t all have character and personality disorders, substance abuse problems, and questionable lifestyles, I found both support and information. For the first time I had peers, access to medical and mental health professionals who could actually help me, and loads (that’s a technical term!) of high-quality information.
Soon I had a modest collection of books and magazines and was even producing a magazine of my own—Chrysalis Quarterly—through The American Educational Gender Information Service, the nonprofit educational clearinghouse I started. Was I happy? You bet!
As works came in I added them to a newly-created bibliography of crossdressing and transsexualism. In cataloging this material and adding the sources mentioned in the reading and reference lists at the ends of journal articles and books, I soon had a prodigious number of entries, which I put on diskette and distributed for free to Chrysalis subscribers. When I sent one to the late Vern Bullough, he suggested I publish it. A week later the mails brought me a contract from Garland, a publisher of textbooks. And so I found myself in the middle of a years-long cataloging process that culminated, in 1994, with the publication of my book Gender Dysphoria: A Guide to Research, a 650+-page bibliography of gender variance. Thank you, Vern, wherever you are.
Many of the sources I catalogued intrigued me, and I began to purposefully acquire them. I bought books at transgender conferences and from the IFGE bookstore, raided Tim’s Books every fall when I hit Provincetown for Fantasia Fair, and purchased new books when I learned about them. On a couple of occasions I bought out a vendor at Southern Comfort. Through Ms. Bob Davis, I learned of Ivan Stormgart, a dealer in vintage LGBT materials in San Francisco, and made some purchases from him. By the end of 1992 I had a room filled with trans-related materials.
In those pre-Amazon, pre-eBay, pre-Advanced Book Exchange days, finding trans-related material required both science and art. It meant networking and lots of trips to bookstores—and I had no idea how much I should be paying for the materials I was acquiring. I was flying by the seat of my pants.
I remember a telephone conversation with Ms. Bob. “Do you have an idea what any of this stuff is worth?” I asked. Ms. Bob didn’t, but said, “In ten years the internet will have sorted it out.” She was right. Today vintage trans materials bring high dollars. It’s not unusual for a copy of Carolyn “Tula” Cossey’s My Story from the early 1990s to bring $100, or for Harry Benjamin’s 1966 text The Transsexual Phenomenon to fetch $300.
And that’s how, based upon finally finding material worth reading and realizing that outside of the occasional private collector there were no repositories for material about me and others like me, my interest in transgender history solidified.
Formation of the NTL&A
In 1993 I made the difficult decision to donate my collection to my nonprofit, The American Educational Gender Information Service. I named the collection The National Transgender Library & Archive and formed a society for the preservation of transgender history—called, naturally enough, The Transgender Historical Society. It was short-lived; thank you, those who joined—and thank you to those who donated materials.
The NTL&A filled two bedrooms in a house I rented in Tucker, Georgia, a community ten miles from downtown Atlanta. People who had learned of the collection would sometimes stop by to visit it, and once, notably, Alison and Dottie Laing slept on an air bed in one of the rooms, surrounded by bookshelves.
For the next several years the collection continued to grow. Meanwhile, I was doing a lot of thinking about AEGIS.
With the official sanction of Sister Mary Elizabeth, who, with Jude Patton ran the J2CP clearinghouse, disseminating information about transsexualism, AEGIS took over J2CP’s work. Sister and Jude had in turn taken over the responsibility from Paul Walker, who, with his Janus Foundation, continued the work of The Erickson Educational Foundation. Thus, AEGIS was continuing a chain of responsibility that had continued unbroken since 1964—some thirty years!
If you don’t know the history of the Erickson Foundation, it was a clearinghouse for information about transsexualism. It fielded questions from journalists, medical professionals, family members, and transsexuals, and published and distributed a selection of booklets. The foundation has an amazing history, best read at Aaron’s website at the University of Victoria.
The Model Changes
By the mid 1990s I was realizing the days of small brick-and-mortar educational nonprofits were numbered. The transgender community simply didn’t have a large enough base to support its nonprofits, who were all struggling to keep their doors open (only one, in fact, had an office and paid staff). The internet, I realized, was about to change everything. It would, for example enable the dissemination of almost unlimited amounts of information to almost unlimited numbers of people for very little money. The old method of distribution of information—receiving a letter from someone who had heard about the organization and was asking for help and returning as much information as could be crammed into a #10 envelope was time-consuming and expensive. It took days for an envelope to arrive, a day or two to stuff and address an envelope and return it, and money for envelopes, paper, duplication, and stamps. The internet provided information instantly, in privacy. Surely a small nonprofit would serve its constituency better by putting together a website than by trying to hold onto a dying model.
All this and more I and Jessica Xavier discussed in five or so issues of AEGIS News, my organization’s newsletter. Out of the public view I told the AEGIS board of directors I would like to transition the organization from a paper-and-stamp model to an internet model, and we began to do just that.
It was an opportune move, for not only was the internet beginning to take off; trans political organizations like GenderPAC and NTAC were siphoning off much of the money previously given to educational nonprofits.
AEGIS went dark in August, 1998 as we struggled to envision and bring to life our next incarnation. Fortunately, Gwendolyn Smith joined the Board and was kind enough to develop a website for Gender Education & Advocacy, the organization’s new name.
GEA would be a streamlined organization with no physical presence. Its face would be its website at gender.org. I still can’t believe the URL was available! Our model of information dispersal would be called distributed gender education. Rather than attempting to be a central authority, as AEGIS had been, the website would provide educational materials which could be downloaded, copied, and distributed by anyone wanting to do the work. It was a concept developed by Jessica Xavier, a member of the GEA board.
Request for Proposals
One issue was unresolved—what about the NTL&A?
We briefly considered trying to raise funds to find a permanent home for the collection, but quickly rejected the idea. It ran contrary to our new vision, and just seemed… inelegant. We decided to look for a new home for the collection.
The matter acquired some urgency when I bought my first house—a two-bedroom cottage in tiny Pine Lake—and moved out of the four-bedroom house I and AEGIS had been sharing with Christine Curran.
Fortunately, Katherine and Erlene McD. offered free storage for the NTL&A. On the day of the move, Andrea Bennett, her son, and one of his friends arrived like shining knights, with a rented truck. With assistance from other volunteers we boxed the collection and moved it to its new home, which would keep the materials dry and secure, but, alas, inaccessible in cardboard boxes.
In 1999 the GEA Board of Directors began its search for a new home for the NTL&A.
We decided to proceed in a systematic and, we hoped, intelligent manner. We began by issuing a request for proposals, asking for nonprofits interested in acquiring the collection to tell us how it would fit into their plans.
By the deadline 13 proposals had arrived from some pretty amazing places, including Cornell University, The University of Michigan, The University of Minnesota, The University of Illinois at Chicago, The LBGT Historical Society of California, The University of California at Northridge, The Kinsey Institute, the LGBT Community Center of New York, and The One Institute. We also heard from a concerned support group in the Southwest which offered to take the materials if no one else was interested.
At the last minute we heard from an organization called (I believe I have the name right) the Gender Education Research Library. When the unfortunate acronym was pointed out, founder Rikki Swin changed the name to the Rikki Swin Institute.
I made copies of the packets and mailed them to the various GEA board members. I included a copy of the RFP and a list of objective criteria developed to ensure both the physical and intellectual safety of the collection. We were concerned that the receipient be financially stable, have a secure building for housing the material, would make the materials available to researchers and the public, and wouldn’t reinterpret the history as part of a larger gay and lesbian history. I asked board members to write down subjective criteria—what did their hearts want for the collection?
A few days before the 30 April deadline the GEA board met via telephone to determine who the recipient would be. I believe I can speak for the rest of the board in saying we felt all the proposals were of excellent quality and would have slept well no matter who won the collection. Using the objective criteria we soon narrowed the field down to three: The LGBT Historical Society of California, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Michigan.
I then asked the board members to talk about the private criteria they had developed. Everyone, it turned out, would prefer the material remain in the family (i.e. go to a trans or largely trans organization), but our overriding concern was the long-term well-being of the collection. We wanted to be sure it would be housed in a safe and dry location with secure funding, hopefully in perpetuity.
That narrowed the field to the universities of Minnesota and Michigan. Because one of our board members (Sandra Cole) was a retired professor at U. MI, we thought, all things being equal, we would go with the U MN to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest. Minnesota, however, didn’t have a building (although they had plans to build one), so the material would initially go into storage. Michigan had a building.
Michigan also had the Labadie Collection, an archive that preserved the history of radical and unpopular social movements like anarchy and anti-war protesting. That decided it for us.
With Sandra abstaining, we decided to award the collection to Michigan, with a request that duplicates and material already in the Michigan system be sent to the LGBT Historical Society of California.
It was then Jamison Green dropped a bomb on the board. We had, he told us, been offered $40,000 under the table by one of the applicants.
That was a huge amount of money to me, and a huge amount to GEA—but we uniformly felt the security of the collection outweighed any amount of money; we never even considered not sticking to our decision.
After the meeting I mailed letters to Michigan and California; the next day I sent letters to the other applicants, thanking them for their interest and informing them of our decision.
One applicant didn’t take it so well; in fact, there was disbelief they hadn’t been selected. And yes, it was the party who had offered us $40,000. In a phone call, the director demanded we allow the organization to send a team to photograph and scan every single document in the massive collection!
I said I would consult with the board, and I did. I phoned the director back and told her she would need to take up the matter with the University of Michigan, as Michigan was now the owner of the material in question. That ended the discussion.
The Collection Moves to Michigan
A month or so later Labadie Curator Julie Herrada flew to Atlanta and rented a huge U-Haul truck. With the help of volunteers we loaded it from stem to stern with the many boxes that comprised the NTL&A and bid her adieu as she left on the long drive back to Ann Arbor.
One year later the books in the collection had been catalogued and listed on the university library’s MIRLYN website. Two years later the periodicals were up.
It’s remarkable—and gratifying—for someone who at age 13 couldn’t find a single piece of literature to search the word transsexual and find more than 1100 results!
In 2004 Dr. Sandra Cole collaborated with the Labadie Collection to put together a dedication ceremony for the NTL&A. I flew to Michigan, where I was treated like royalty. A selection of materials from the NTL&A, including two pair 50+-year-old pairs of Virginia Prince’s high heels, were on display. Speakers at the dedication included myself, Sandra, Labadie curator Julie Harrada, University Provost Paul Courant, and State Sen. Liz Brater. I was immensely flattered.
Not a day goes by that I don’t miss my former collection; not a week goes by in which I don’t need a quote or a page number or a scan of a page. But you know what? I’m glad the collection is where it is—safe, and preserved in perpetuity.
I’m glad also the NTL&A materials see constant use. Researchers visit daily, and the materials they examine play a prominent role in their writing. One researcher, Darryl Hill, based his doctoral dissertation on a complete run of Transvestia donated by Michelle McAllen.
So yeah, twenty-nine linear feet. Twenty-nine feet of materials, available to anyone who wants to view it. I’m proud of that.